How the Tool Box became a Whole Foods

The aftermath of Folsom Street Fair (link NSFW) is over, and San Francisco is settling back into itself, a growingly genteel city interrupted by the occasional burp of a flailing queer culture — an increasingly mainstream Pride that looks more like a party for straight people than a defiant celebration of life, a Folsom Street Fair turned gawking tourist attraction, an Up Your Alley slowly being infiltrated by fascinated onlookers, a Lexington forever closed and with it many other gay and lesbian bars. San Francisco is often hailed as a sort of queer cornerstone, the hub of a wheel projecting queer spokes across the nation, but it feels more like a quiet, tame, performative queer culture than it once did — ACT UP and Harvey Milk are long gone, replaced by Hot Cookie and obligatory rainbow flags in June.

While many people associate the Castro with San Francisco’s LGBQT community, SoMa was once a beating heart of its own, focused primarily on the gay leather community. Today, only a handful of establishments, like Mr. S, are left behind, remainders of a once-thriving world which echoes at Folsom. SoMa’s face has changed radically in the last five years as tech companies and the accompanying development have moved in, displacing low-income residents, chasing after the homeless community, and shifting the focus of SoMa forever. Some see this gentrification as a good thing, arguing that SoMa was unclean, unpleasant, and sometimes even dangerous before the community was rescued from itself, but that doesn’t address the cultural losses facilitated through the development of the region.

Many LGBQT establishments were already fighting for survival before development, and they really can’t afford to stay in business with the region of the city rapidly going upscale. The area of SoMa with manageable rents is shrinking, and once well-established businesses are starting to fail, one by one, unable to keep up. This may be viewed as a sign of the times and an inevitable shift in the city’s culture, but it’s a loss of a vibrant component of San Francisco.

This is perhaps most exemplified by what happened to the Tool Box, a gay leather bar established in 1961 (link NSFW) to service the city’s growing queer community. As early as the 1940s, the city was becoming a queer gathering point for the simple fact that sailors dismissed from their ships for homosexuality were landing in the city with limited resources to go somewhere else. In response, they established queer enclaves, carving out space for themselves and their communities in an era when they were very much living on the margins, when homosexuality was highly stigmatised and being out was a highly dangerous endeavor. Thus communities arose in regions like SoMa and the Castro, a vibrant low-income mixed race community. Gay men couldn’t afford to live anywhere else.

The Tool Box was iconic as the first major establishment where gay men gathered with those of similar interests in a safe environment where they weren’t the outsiders or those speaking in code: A leather bar, a place for them, in a way that the Lex provided a space for the city’s lesbians when it was founded nearly 20 years ago, joining a long line of lesbian bars that allowed women to meet, flirt, and hook up across the city. But visitors to the site of the Tool Box today will find something very different: A Whole Foods, complete with edgy design intended to appeal to the techies who work in the surrounding blocks. It’s just off Yerba Buena Park, which was opposed by some anti-development advocates worried about what it signaled for gentrification in the city. Their concerns were merited, considering the way San Francisco is and has been changing, from a lively and diverse city to one that’s much more restrictive, with the largest economic gap in the country.

Seeing a single leather bar turned into another business might not seem like the end of the world, but it’s a potent symbol. The Tool Box wasn’t the only place for men to hook up and its conversion doesn’t single the end of men’s options in the city, but the fact that it shifted from a bar in a formerly low-income, gay neighbourhood to an upscale grocery store that many low-income people can’t afford to shop in embedded within a techie paradise is a poignant testimony to what San Francisco has become. Not that long ago, I saw myself in the city, as a member of the queer community and someone who spent a great deal of time in and out of queer spaces in San Francisco. Now, I see the city pushing queers out, especially those living on the margins — transgender women, queer people of colour, disabled queer people, those who are suffering the most from the city’s class inequalities.

I remember the history of the ferocious advocacy of the HIV/AIDS crisis, the brave patients and medical professionals on Ward 5B, the sense of community and commonality. I remember watching the city gentrify around me as I lived there, and the accelerated rate of change after I left. And I wonder when the city’s queer history will become a footnote rather than a living, breathing part of what San Francisco is today. What happens when the city’s identity is taken, and the queer community is driven out entirely, when the Whole Foodses and Anthropologies of the world have utterly devoured the city’s unique and diverse communities?

Image: Folsom Street Fair, San Francisco, Genial 23, Flickr